The word ‘nostalgia’ is made up of two Greek words ‘nostos’ that means ‘return’ and ‘algos’ that means suffering, the combination coming to mean a suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return to a place or time that is lost. This time, when one year is ending and another is about to rise over the horizon is the season for this. The cusp of two years usually brings on a bout of nostalgia. ‘Auld lang syne’ and so on. As for get togethers of high school batches and college batches, that have become rather plentiful these days, they practically float on the feeling. One tends to speak of the ‘good old days’ without actually remembering what sort of days they really were. One forgets how unsure and vulnerable the teenage years were, how easily hurt one was, so sure that the world would end if something did nor did not happen. Somerset Maugham declared long ago, ‘It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it, but the young know they are wretched.’ And since youth is a time of heightened emotions and reactions, this wretchedness is so intense.
And yet this illusion of the middle aged or over, about a youth that was golden, this is comparatively harmless if a little irritating for the others around. But when it happens to a whole society it is a dangerous thing. This rosy picture of a society that was all united and untroubled by dissonances and divisions, contrasting it with an unpleasant present that, according to the purveyors of this idea exists now, is such a false one. Earlier, society had not been the cohesive unified structure that seems to be evoked by this shared nostalgia. It had been riven by divisions on the basis of religion, caste, wealth, gender. It had been cruel to those without power and strength, treating human beings like cattle or worse. And yet, this nostalgia glosses over all that, and imposes a common memory that does not exist at all. A sort of ‘legislated nostalgia’ that forces a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.
I see it in the messages that flash virally in the groups on the internet, a sort of ‘People were healthy, they were good to each other, society was virtuous’ and the rest of it. From food and exercise to medicines and treatment of illnesses, to behaviour and family ties, it covers everything. It glosses over the lives that were lost for want of effective medicine and treatment, lives that were lost to violence based on caste or gender, the limited lives that were available to many, the humiliations that were daily occurrences to a large proportion of people. It is a pernicious nostalgia in that it imputes the loss of this ideal society to the presence of ‘others’ who have somehow diluted this beautifully cohesive and serene picture.
It is much easier to blame someone else for the loss of something precious, real or imagined, ignoring the facts. The fact is that given a time machine you would not take yourself back to that world with its discomforts and dangers. You would not willingly give up your comforts and luxuries to accept the spartan life of a hundred years back. It is just something to talk about, something to mourn. And it gives you an excuse not to try and improve the present, to exert yourself to change the society around you, or at least change your lifestyle to something that is healthier and closer to nature.
Nostalgia is dangerous because it keeps you looking backwards and prevents you from seeing what is right before you. It saves you from taking responsibility for the present, the present of the world around you and your own self. It is all very well to keep ‘those fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ but to rely on those fragments to give meaning to your life is to validate the ruins that the present has scattered around you.
Nostalgia is such a pleasantly melancholy feeling, something like listening to old music or rereading a favourite book, that it takes will power to shake yourself out of it. And yet, it has to be done to get on with living.